The recent announcement by the Yamal government to artificially reduce the number of reindeer in the Yamal-Nenets Okrug by a quarter of a million animals has caused a discussion in Russia that has now spilled over to the international arena. The Siberian Times has thoroughly reported about the plans both from the pro and the contra side.
On a Russian website Sergei Khudi is quoted for suggesting that herders should be compensated for that slaughter not in money but in mortgage off-pay for apartments in villages. Sergei is a long term collaborator of the anthropology team in Rovaniemi and has been at the Arctic Centre several times, and I have lived at his parents’ place in the tundra when I was doing my PhD fieldwork. Sergei is now the Yamal-Potomkam! association’s vice president and has a track record of environmental and political activism for the coexistence of nomadism with gas development. His suggestion with the mortgage off-pay rather than money is controversial. On the one hand, the idea is understandable that you do not want to pay just large amount of cash to herders without earmarking the money for a useful purpose. On the other hand, these reindeer are the herders’ private property and as free citizens they should have the right to decide what happens to the income from that private property. But more worrying is the connection between killing animals – the base of a nomadic lifestyle for herders – in exchange for helping them to get housing in the settlements. Is this a kind of voluntary sedentarisation through the back door, advocated by indigenous representatives themselves? Incidentally, the government plans to slaughter come at a time when industry also happens to want to speed up gas exploration in the area.
Our colleague Olga Murashko is quoted to have said in the Siberian times article that the measure endangers nomadic reindeer herding on Yamal, and that many herders have not much more than a 100 reindeer to bring to this deal. Most probably, poorer herders would not have mortgages to pay off in the first place, and secondly if they had, they would hardly agree to sacrifice their herd for a partial mortage pay-off. So the measure with the reindeer-for-mortgage would target only wealthier herders that could be interested to getting rid of their debts faster than planned. However, one is left wondering why namely now this mass slaughter is suggested, as the Yamal Nenents already lost tens of thousands of reindeer in the 2014 icing over event, and again more in the recent anthrax outbreak. So if this was so pressing, why wasn’t this slaughtering suggested two years ago when there were almost 100 000 more reindeer on Yamal?
The bottom line is that in the end it has to be up the herders themselves whether and how many of their reindeer they want to slaughter. It is encouraging that everybody seems to agree with this, and there is no expropriation of this private property of the herders planned. By the way – even if there would be – it would not be something that would be exceptional, as sad as it is. For the same official reason police in northern Finland forced unwilling herders in Nellim 2011 to slaughter their reindeer because of exceeding the allowable numbers calculated by the pasture scientists.
In Yamal, the discussion about maximum allowable numbers of reindeer on the pastures has also been going on for decades. Scientific calculations on how many reindeer are tolerable per pasture unit are very often challenged by herders. Back in the early 2000’s I encountered the same during my work with Yamal herding: already back then different calculations of carrying capacity were saying the exact opposite from each other! (Stammler 2005, chp 7, pp 239-252). So this discussion how much the pastures are overloaded is not new now at all. The point that the herders have is that the models often do not consider herding practices. However, it makes a huge difference whether the animals decide where they graze or the humans! Since with domestic reindeer a lot of human decision making (different from caribou) influences where reindeer consume how much biomass in which season throughout the year, models calculation standardised grazing pressures and vegetation recovery times are insufficient. Now in addition to that there comes still that due to what colleague Bruce Forbes and others have described as ‘greening of the Arctic’ and increased shrub growth due to warming actually might increase the available plant biomass on the tundra to be consumed by reindeer. Has someone calculated that into the carrying capacity consideration?
It remains really to be hoped that if the reindeer number of Yamal is going to be regulated by centralistic measures, so all the best practices for interferring so thoroughly with the basis of this nomadic culture should be applied: FPIC (free prior informed consent), adequate compensation, and slaughtering implemented in a way that no herder who does not want would be induced to settle in the village. Instead, the offloading of grazing pressure should boost the nomads’ capacity to herd their animals on healthy ground for a continuation of their nomadic lifesyle, not the end of it, as some authors fear who connect the slaughtering campaign with increased pressure for gas development at the same time.